Distance: 18-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 900 ft
This ride is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge loop—a complete chestnut, over-hyped and tourist-ridden. Plus it’s all about money (you ride by Pebble Beach Golf Course, for god’s sake)—but, all that aside, it’s an utterly delightful bike ride. Every time I do it, I wish I could live there so I could do it every day. You ride by great oceanfront scenery, through lanes of coastal cypresses, do a nice climb and roll through Monterey pine forest, then do a fun, fast descent. The twenty-million-dollar houses are actually pretty cool too, if you can forget the socio-political issues. The road contour by the water is often delightful—up and down and back and forth—and the inland half of the loop has a significant climb and some very nice, fast descendingg. You’ll do some work—my computer recorded 1300 ft vert. The traffic can be a bit noisome, granted, and if you can do the ride before 10 AM so much the better. Of course you’d like to do the ride at sunset, but that’s when everyone else wants to be there too—the last time I did it at sunset, one parking area had four gigantic motor coaches disgorging tourists.
Presently (4/17) just beyond the Carmel gate turnoff there’s a large sign reading “No Bicycles Beyond This Point.” Mari Lynch, whose Bicycling Monterey blog is an invaluable source of information about riding in the area, tells me it’s because of a round-about construction going on at the top of the hill. As with all “road closed” signs, I’d ride until something stops me.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
The route is a cinch to navigate. Because the locals want to keep you from exploring the neighborhoods, they’ve painted huge, unmissable “17-Mile Drive” signs on the road at all the intersections. Just follow them. Start where the Drive takes off from Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. Immediately you’ll see a manned gate charging an entrance fee from the cars, but you’re free, so bypass it on the R via a little side road (officially you’re supposed to pay a cyclists’ fee, but no one ever does). Take a signed R onto Spanish Bay Rd. (not the first R, into a golf course and the Inn at Spanish Bay) and roll along the ocean, stopping at parking lots for the views, then climb up onto a bluff fronting the sea. Here the road is lined by grand cypresses and some of the most expensive mansions you’ll ever see. Feel free to fantasize.
Just after you pass Pebble Beach Golf Course and ride through the parking lot, you reach an intersection and turn R. You see a sign reading “Narrow road—cyclists exercise caution,” and you’re in for a few minutes of white-knuckling. I guess the cars are free to continue their reckless ways.
Soon the road Y’s, with the main road turning right-angle L and beginning an obvious climb away from the water, and the secondary road going R and dropping to a lovely back door into the hamlet of Carmel (see Adding Miles below). There’s a temptation to turn around here and retrace your steps, since you’re naturally keen to see all that coastal beauty a second time, but don’t—what lies ahead is not to be missed. Do the substantial (800-ft) climb up to Hwy 68. The route at this point is momentarily disconcerting, but you really have little choice: ignoring the R to the exit gate, go L, paralleling 68, then R to cross over 68 as soon as you can, then continue on the main road through a series of intersections all the way back to Spanish Bay Rd., following the “17-Mile Drive” signs on the road. All the sight-seeing cars leave the Scenic Drive at Hwy 68 or earlier, and almost no one lives back here, so you’ll have this back side of the loop all to yourself. You’ll hardly see a car. It’s grand riding, gently up and down for a while, then a fast, swooping descent on perfect pavement back to near-sea level.
The one place where you cannot follow the signage is when you close the loop at Spanish Bay Rd, which you took to get to the shoreline earlier. A large, unmissable sign painted on the road will tell you that the Scenic Drive goes L, down Spanish Bay Rd. toward the ocean. Well, the loop part of our route does, but you already did that, and if you go down there you’ll find yourself retracing the loop forever. There are worse fates. But ignore the sign, go straight, and you’ll retrace the stem of the lollipop and end the ride at the Sunset Drive entrance.
Adding miles: The 17-Mile Drive works its way around the perimeter of a network of residential streets, and you can explore any of them. The architecture is fascinating everywhere, and there are equestrian stables with rich girls doing dressage and such—it’s a whole world in there you’re only allowed to glimpse.
At the start of our route you’re a short ride along the shore from one of the three best rec bike paths on the West Coast (the other two being Sacramento’s American River Parkway and Eugene’s riverfront trail system): the Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Path, 29 miles of ideal bike strolling that runs from the 17-Mile Drive to Castroville, working its way, always along the water, through the beautiful residential neighborhoods of Pacific Grove, the bustle and charm of the Monterey waterfront, the tourist madness of Cannery Row, past the Aquarium, and finally along the beach dunes north of Monterey. Once north of Monterey the path is usually empty enough of walkers that you can time trial it if you’re of a mind—during the Sea Otter Festival you’ll always see pros keeping their legs loose there. The Monterey Aquarium, of course, is a world-class facility well worth an afternoon. To find the Bike Path from our starting point on the 17-Mile Drive, just ride straight to the ocean and ride north along the water.
At the southeast corner of the 17-Mile Scenic Drive loop, at the Y, if you go R instead of L, in a quarter mile you reach the back door into Carmel, perhaps the most adorable village in America. Every house looks like a variation on Hansel and Gretel’s candy house, every restaurant serves good and interesting food, every shop boasts tasteful, unique goods and friendly staff. You can ride down to the beach via Ocean Avenue, take the simply and appropriately named Scenic Road past the beach bungalows, and eventually work your way to Hwy 1, at which point you’re seven miles from my beloved Robinson Canyon Road ride. A few miles past Robinson is our East Carmel Valley Road ride.